One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about reading more comics in the last few years is discovering the world of independent and biographical comics. Books like Queen and Country, Funny Misshapen Body, Strangers in Paradise and Local have found a place on my shelves alongside Spidey, Cap and Green Lantern. You can imagine my excitement when I came home this weekend and found J. T. Yost‘s Old Man Winter sitting in front of my door.
Old Man Winter is the first collection of comics from Yost, whose work has appeared in collections from the New York Press, Three Rivers Press, and a number of other institutions and periodicals. Rather than release the collection as a staple-bound comic or a trade paperback digest, Birdcage Bottom Books will release Old Man Winter this fall as a prestige softcover. It’s honestly a format I’d like more indie publishers to embrace – it fits on the shelf better and is more durable than stapled books, and is more affordable than most larger trades and hardcovers.
The cover art is beautiful – somehow simultaneously cartoony and gritty – and really pops in black, white and pink. I do wish Yost has used a different font for the title and especially for the nearly unreadable subtitle. I can appreciate the stylish graffiti as an artistic choice, but the bookseller in me wishes for something more instantly decipherable to put on the shelf. Luckily, Yost chose a different font for the Jeffrey Brown blurb on the back of the wraparound cover.
The book itself contains five short stories Yost has written in the last half-decade. The titular story is both the newest work by Yost and the only one that has never been previously published. The other four (All is Forgiven, Logging Sanjay, Roadtrip and Circus) have been in anthologies and art shows, but Old Man Winter and Other Sordid Tales is the only place to get Yost’s work as a collection. While the subject matter of the five stories is wildly varied, the quality of the stories is much more consistent.
“Old Man Winter” is the longest story in the book, taking up about half of the total pages. It is Yost’s newest included piece, and the quality of the work is deserving of it’s headlining spot in the collection. The story concerns the life of an elderly man living alone in the city, a widower who shops at a local art store and has a doting daughter. The story is about much more than that, though – it’s really about the deep desire we have for human interaction, and the loneliness we can feel even if we’re surrounded by other people. Maybe it’s partially because I’ve long struggled with loneliness and being an introvert, but the story felt incredibly poignant to me. Panels of the old man walking through crowds without talking to anyone and living alone in his apartment are silently powerful. Conversations with his daughter (who can’t understand why he keeps all of his wife’s old things) and with the clerks whom he desperately wants to befriend are heartbreaking. The art is Yost’s strongest, detailed and confident cartooning with a lightness that seems incongruent with the heavy subject matter. Seriously, this story is strong enough alone to merit picking up the book.
“All is Forgiven”, the next piece in Old Man Winter, is probably the weakest of the bunch. The four-page comic shows a lab technician doing some sort of testing on animals, finding that his wife left him, and then releasing all the animals. Maybe it’s the lack of dialog or the number of hours covered in so few panels, but something just didn’t click with me. Yost notes in the back that the comic had to include a number of disparate elements, so maybe that has something to do with it. Yost’s art is still strong, but the execution is pretty standard – none of the panels or angles jump out as dynamic or groundbreaking like in the other stories.
“Logging Sanjay” is different from the other pieces in the book; rather than fiction, it’s an autobiographical piece from Yost. Apparently, in middle school J.T. and his buddy Matt used to “log” their friend Sanjay – a type of prank I’ll leave unexplained. It’s a cute story, and a great bit of humor in an otherwise bleak book. The way this story was narrated and the panel layouts reminded me of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, so if you like Alison’s style you’ll likely find a lot to like in that regard in this story. I was also charmed by the fact that Yost’s first admission of the prank to Sanjay was this comic.
The other two stories in the book, “Roadtrip” and “Circus”, are almost identical in subject and execution. “Roadtrip” tells parallel stories of a young girl and a young calf, with panels of the girl’s life on the left and the calf’s life on the right. As you would imagine, things go much better for the girl than the calf – while a trip for her ends with a visit to an amusement park and fast food joint, the calf’s is to a slaughterhouse and then the girl’s plate. Similarly, “Circus” covers the lives of a young boy and a young elephant. The boy runs away to join the circus and gets stuck shovelling elephant dung, while the elephant gets captured by the circus and… um… creates the dung to be shoveled. Comics are a great medium to show the two parallel stories, and Yost is great at matching physically similar moments in the lives of the characters. My main criticism of the stories is their similarity. It seems redundant to me to include the two stories, and I thought “Roadtrip” was much stronger than “Circus”. The fact that “Circus” was told in only two super-condensed pages is very stylistically cool, but I’d rather have had the pages spent on a different story. Of course, if I had not read the stories back-to-back I might feel differently.
All in all, this freshman effort from Yost is a strong offering. Despite my complaints, there is more than enough good work here to recommend the book – especially at less than $7. J.T. is a strong writer and a great cartoonist, and his work shows real growth over the half-dozen years compiled in Old Man Winter. The book turns an honest and somewhat bleak camera on life, and the end result is a fascinating look at the human condition. The book won’t be out until this summer, but look it up in Diamond previews and keep your eyes open for it in August.
Old Man Winter and Other Sordid Tales, by J.T. Yost – 6.95 – Paperback – ISBN 978-0-615-27304-4 – Birdcage Bottom Books